Buddy went to his first cyclocross race of the season in Rochester, in that lovely Olmstead designed park. Buddy is fond of children, the smaller the better, although I suspect he likes the babies in strollers primarily for the stuffed toys wedged in the stroller with them. He is gentle, though, as he roots out the toys and tugs them from their dark corners. Some babies think this is funny and gurgle with delight as they see their stuffed alligators or teddy bears making their way in Buddy’s careful mouth to the light of day; others become upset as they see their toys changing hands. They are probably future Republicans.
Buddy had satisfying exchanges with three sets of children that weekend. The first was a tiny infant being carried by its mother in a front-harness baby holder. I had Buddy in his own backpack, on my back. In case you haven’t seen it, Buddy sits in the pack with his head and one leg visible, looking like, as someone observed, “a cabby with his arm hanging out.” When the infant saw Buddy on my back, his neutral expression creased into a slow, serene, appreciative smile. Really, it was just like having a Buddhist monk smile at us.
The second was a group of three siblings. They asked (as most children do these days) if they could pet Buddy, who had trotted right up to them. He nestled himself into the center of the three as they crowded around, gently patting and exclaiming about how soft he was.
“I like how his mouth does this,” said the littlest boy and made a small moue.
“I wish we could have a dog. We might get one,” said the middle child, a small boy, with an Arab name.
“We won’t get one,” said his older sister, who had early adolescent pimples and braces but who seemed full of joy. She hadn’t said it to be mean, I could tell. There are disappointments in life, she seemed to know already, and there was no point in pretending otherwise. I really liked those kids.
The third encounter was a little four-or-five-year-old who marched up, and asked to pet Buddy.
“Sure,” I said. “He likes people who are little.”
As soon as I said that, I knew it was wrong and the child set me straight at once.
“I’m not little,” he said without rancor.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I said that.”
Facts restored, he proceeded to pet Buddy. “What’s his name?”
“Buddy,” I said.
He paused, his face wrinkled in puzzlement. “What’s his nickname?”
I cracked up. Because, really, he had a point.
“Little potato,” I said, and now the boy cracked up.
An hour or so later, Buddy and I were near the finish line and I heard a shrill, piping
voice behind us, getting louder, “His nickname is little potato.”
I looked around. The not-little kid was ushering a group of friends over.
“His nickname is little potato,” he informed them again, bending down to pet Buddy proprietarily.
Last night I read through that little gem, The Elements of Style. Updated, its core nonetheless remains as sound as a ninety-year-old yogi.
In today’s children and young adult books, there is a fixation on “voice.” “Voice” is what is most often referenced when agents are asked what they look for when reading a manuscript. “A fresh voice” they say, whatever that means. Based on the books I review, “a fresh voice” is often on par with the flat, loud volume of commercials or the exaggerated drama of reality shows. It exhausts the reader with its neediness.
Here, by calming contrast, is Strunk and White’s advice in the chapter titled “An Approach to Style.”
Place yourself in the background. Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.
If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background.
A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.
Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.
Once upon a time, in America, there was a person who wanted something very badly. This person held solid conservative values. She believed in hard work. She believed in family. She believed in the church and service to her community.
But this thing this person wanted, it turns out, wasn’t so easy to get. Everyone in her community agreed she should have it; it was the perfect fit for her sensibility.
She discovered, when she tried to get this thing, that she had to have a criminal history background check. After that, a child abuse background check. Then, once she cleared those, she needed to be finger printed and those fingerprints registered with the FBI.
So what was this thing that required such a thorough investigation of her background, her character and the assurance of future identification just in case?
Was it purchasing a gun?
Oh, this is America, people. Of course not.
This person wanted to work in the Children’s Section of her local library.
As I sit here writing this, I see that it is snowing. Again. I mean, come on. I feel like I’m living in Narnia. Which brings me to my topic this week: book reviews.
I work as a children’s book reviewer. I’ve heard various comments from authors when I tell them what I do. “Be nice,” says one. “Do you even read the book?” says another. “Must take you about fifteen minutes, right?” says the third.
None of these statements is true. I am not nice, since “nice” doesn’t help a person decide if they should spend their hard-earned money to buy the book; rather, I am honest. I read the book. Instead of fifteen minutes, it’s an average of nine hours, plus reading time.
I’ll use a picture book as an example, since how hard can it be to review a picture book, right?
I first read the book (which is usually in the form of an F&G, “folded and gathered”—it’s the picture book without a binding) to establish an overall, ingenuous idea of the story. Then I read it again…and again…and again… I study the typeface; is it effective, does it change, if so, why, where is it placed on the page and does that work? I look at the illustrations; their medium, their placement on the page—does that encourage the page turn, do they respect the gutter, does it balance with the type, does white space come into play? Next I look at the two together. Is the overall design of each page—illustration and text—well thought out with successful execution? Now I look at the content of the illustrations. Do they mirror the text or do they add another layer? Perhaps they even tell their own story, and does this work? Finally, trim size. What size and shape is the overall book? A story of a journey, for example, is usually most successful as a landscape format. My finished review can only be a little more than two hundred words and must follow a specific format. I must get in the plot summary, its successful or unsuccessful execution and why, and a recommendation or not.
My advice to writers who have received a review from a professional reviewer that they are unhappy with—read it very closely. Within the limitations of a word count, the reviewer is trying to tell you something. Those spots that prickle your skin with indignation—take them as critique.
By someone who cares.
Every generation thinks the generation coming up is teetering on dissipation. It’s pretty much a checkmark for middle age when you find yourself thinking that “kids these days” aren’t nearly as 1] responsible 2] engaged 3] committed 4] educated as you were. But what if they aren’t? I own a schoolbook, Sheldon’s Modern School Third Reader, published in the late 1800’s. Here’s one of the writing exercises for the eight-year-olds to copy and learn: “Little children, love each other, never give another pain; if your brother speak in anger, answer not in wrath again.” The book unabashedly teaches the values of its society: be kind, be helpful, be strong, and keep trying.
In a house I once lived in, I found a newspaper wedged into a gap in the wall. It was dated January 1861. Most of the front page was a literal transcription of a debate in the Senate about whether to continue postal service, among other concerns, to those southern states that had just seceded from the United States. No sound bites, no catchy illustrations–this newspaper assumed its readership didn’t need to be entertained, just informed; and being informed, could reach its own conclusions.
Is entertainment becoming more and more of a priority with each succeeding generation? A recent TED talk made the proposition that the millennials—the tag given to those born, approximately, between 1981 and 2001—could be the next “greatest generation.” The TED argument mostly ran along the lines of the millennials hyper-connectivity and their openness to change. Certainly, millennials are hyper-connected and an openness to change is always a good thing. But are millennials orchestrating the change themselves—building a society of values like Sheldon’s Modern School Third Reader—or are they simply ingesting what is fed to them?
Because technological connectedness is a form of consumerism.
By eschewing critical thinking for app-and info-tainment, millennials are allowing those who create the apps and programs to think for them, sort of like children do. Add to that, the fact that many millennials still live with their parents (and get along with them!) and you come up with the rather depressing conclusion that adulthood for this generation has been abnormally delayed.
A key component of adulthood is individuation. It is a time to test boundaries, stretch the brain, question authority—in short, a time to figure out who you are by questioning and comparing. (That’s why it’s almost necessary to not get along with your parents while individuating.)
So is anything really wrong with being a child in your twenties and thirties? Why not just be entertained? Because inevitably someone’s going to take charge of your life, and it would be better if it were you, not the conglomerations that deliver your entertainment. My advice to millennials: Become indignant. Become discerning. Become more of a creator and less of a consumer.
What if each successive generation is a little more willing to be entertained than to entertain the hard questions? What if it’s true?
Back in my craft show days, I used to bring my smaller spinning wheel to the venue to while away the hours between customers. Spinning fascinates children; at the shows, I was a child-magnet and soon I realized I was also the babysitter.
“Look kids,” the mother or father would exclaim pushing sweaty hair out of their eyes, “she’s making string!”
The kids would gather round and then the parent, after a pause, would slip away, no doubt figuring their children were safe for a bit while they had a few moments to themselves to maybe check out the hand-blown glass booth. At first I was surprised that parents would leave their kids with me, then I felt flattered. Then I felt a surge of parental responsibility. Heck, I figured, I ought to educate these kids. So I would explain how “in the old days” people spun fiber to create thread—not string—to weave into cloth to sew into clothes.
“Why don’t they just buy them at the store?” one little girl asked, unimpressed.
“They didn’t have so many stores,” another child replied. “They only had stores that sold barrels of flour.” (Apparently a devotee of the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series.)
One day I was spinning mohair—the fiber from the Angora goat. The usual crowd of kids was around, so I launched into my spiel. “This is mohair,” I said. “See how lustrous it is? It’s used for—“
“—what’s a Mo?” a boy from the front row interrupted.
Another time, I decided to give them the whole shebang. I began with the carding combs, demonstrating brushing the fibers into line and peeling off the rolags to be spun. Since the children looked so dumbfounded (which I interpreted as amazement) I began to explain the principles of spinning, explaining how the microscopic scales on wool fibers caught with each other—sort of like Velcro—and that was what allowed the thread to form, and was also what was responsible for felting. About this time, a scrawny boy with ill-fitting clothes and scuffed sneakers moved closer to the spinning wheel. His eyes flitted from me to the spinning wheel, back and forth, with more and more urgency as I continued to lecture. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore.
“Just do it, already!” he burst out.
His unwashed face and dark-circled eyes, so different from the scrubbed and well-fed faces of the kids who lived in this prosperous town, looked intense; his eyes burned. I began to spin.
The other kids eventually drifted away, or were picked up by their parents, but he stayed, rapt, watching the spinning wheel create thread, as if seeing magic in the world for the first time.
We drove past Sandy Hook and Newtown on our way home from Virginia this Memorial Day and next to the exit sign was a hand-lettered placard: “Free coffee and doughnuts.” This community had twenty first-graders and six teachers and administrators massacred by a man with an assault weapon. And what were they doing on this Memorial Day? Trying to keep drivers alert…and alive.
I hear people defend their right to own assault weapons because they say they need to be safe from “bad guys with guns.” I hear people say they need to protect their own. I never hear them say they want to protect their neighbors. I never hear them say they want to help. I hear them only expound on themselves and their rights.
But Sandy Hook, a town whose children did die from a bad guy with guns—they care about keeping you, anonymous you, alive.
Who has the bigger heart? Who has the richer soul? Who holds the future of our species? Do you want higher walls, bigger guns, more rampant paranoia? Or do you want the compassion of a town trying to keep holiday drivers alive, even as they continue to mourn the senseless slaughter of their children?
I wish I had thought that up, but I confess I heard it in an interview and I can no longer remember who said it. At any rate, for me it gets to the heart of a warped belief system in this country.
The other night I watched a documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where girls and young women burned to death because there were no laws in place to make their workplace safe. The staircase door was locked, the elevator could hold only a few people at a time and the fire escape was so decrepit, it collapsed. Girls as young as 14 jumped to their deaths, while others died wreathed in flames. Predictably, public outrage was great, and that outrage led to federal laws being passed to protect workers in their workplace. At the end of the documentary, the narrator said: “but before this could happen, women had to burn.”
When I heard those words, a chill ran through me, because it brought to mind Sandy Hook and the massacre of 26 people, 20 of them first-graders. Public outrage was great then, too. But not enough to pass new laws to protect other children from the same fate.
We have sunk to the level of making our children pay for our fetish of individuality. We think our personal freedom to carry an assault weapon is far more important than the lives of our children.
If a society cannot keep its children safe from itself, then it has failed its primary purpose—that of perpetuating itself—not to mention a certain reverence for life. Fetishizing personal freedom spells the end of a civilized society.
Last week I spent a few days in Brooklyn and Manhattan. It was just the thing to kick away the winter blues. I went to the Rubin Museum and saw an exhibition on prayer beads; I had a perfect cappuccino at Amy’s Bread. I sampled lots of cheese at Murray’s Cheese Shop, and then had a leisurely lunch at Murray’s Cheese Bar. And shopping—Richie’s birthday is Valentine’s Day (sweet!) so I wanted to see what I could find in the little shops of the West Village.
When it was time for me to leave, my host generously escorted me from her home in Brooklyn where I had been staying through the subway maze to Penn station. (She is adept and brave in subways—I am not.) Walking from the subway through Penn station, I noticed the large glossy ads lining the tunnel. Each advertised a movie, a fragrance (with celebrity attached), a TV show. All displayed the ambitious shining faces of humans who are eager to live their lives for public consumption. The display put me into mind something the novelist Somerset Maugham said after he returned from a stint of writing scripts in Hollywood. He said the money was good, but he got tired of the endless parade of tawdry egos.
I can’t even imagine at this middle age of my life, wanting to, or needing to be validated by a general public. But I wanted to when I was younger; I remember feeling it strongly.
I think that youth have a visceral need to belong—it’s part of who they are. I hope, though, that they are mature enough know the price before they commit to the sale.
Life is not fifteen minutes of fame. Life is the hero’s journey.
Joseph Campbell identified what he named “the hero’s journey” as the one constant myth throughout all cultures and societies. It is the individuation process of becoming who we are and fulfilling our destiny within our greater community. So-called “primitive” societies have marked this coming of age with rituals that are, for the most part, missing in modern society; but the need is still the same—to find out who you are as an individual and within that, where you belong. Rituals validate this growth, making it more palatable since growth, by definition being outside of the comfort zone, is not a comfortable process. But if the urge to individuate is not honored—if we numb it with drugs or alcohol or inattention—it will come back, and even stronger.
Life is only growth, and to that end, challenges are presented to facilitate this growth. Behaviors that prevent us from moving forward stall growth, but the challenges continue.
So face your challenges, embrace your individuation process. There’s no one else like you in the entire world, and your voice has something to say. Find out what that is and present it.
Leave home, find your power, bring it back to your community and share it. Then the circle is complete.